Connect & Inspire – A conservation Hui in Warkworth

Restore Rodney East recently held a Hui for environmental community groups across Rodney. The theme of the Hui was Connect and Inspire. The RRE team wanted to encourage local groups to look up from the diligent day-to-day work that takes place across the rohe and think about the future of conservation, review where we are currently at with tackling predator control and consider the tools and resources that might be available to us in the future.

MCed by The Forest Bridge Trust’s Tris Bondsfield the day started with a confronting presentation from Professor Kim King a leading authority on mustelid behaviour. Professor King has spent many years studying mustelids and presented the audience with evidence-based facts from her lifetime of research. It was sobering to hear that the stoat’s efficient fertility cycle is a highly challenging problem. Stoats mate between Sept and November, but female stoats are almost always pregnant, most young females leave the nest at 3 months fertilized by a male. Delayed implantation for up to 9 months means that most kits are born at the same time in the early Spring. The number of kits born in Spring will very much depend on the abundance of food available to the female over the embryonic diapause phase of the pregnancy. If there is a good source of nutrients, then all embryos might take and result in a litter of 8 – 12 kits. With a highly effective breeding cycling trapping is essential especially over dispersal season when young stoats seek out territories of their own.

For now, predator control is our main resource that we have available to protect our Taonga species from stoat incursions. Stoats do not have a natural predator here in New Zealand whereas in the UK where they originated foxes help to keep their numbers down. Coupled with the fact that stoats have vast territories, that they can climb trees and swim up to 5km, nowhere can be considered 100% safe from them. One single female could swim to an offshore island and start a whole new colony of stoats. The battle with stoats remains ongoing!

Professor Kim King was not in favour of a genetic solution to eradicate any one pest. The dilemma is that if we get rid of stoats there will likely be more weasels, if we get rid of all possums there will likely be more rats. If we eliminate one pest species another will take its place. As of now, there is no solution, the ideal outcome would be to get rid of all pests at the same time, however, we will need to wait for research & development and science to progress to tackle this problem. Until such time we must continue doing what we are doing to protect the wildlife we currently have, the focus must be on the sustained control of pests and habitat improvement to increase the fertility of our birds.

“Sustained control is essential until we can find better techniques,” said Professor Kim King. “We must ensure that there is something worth saving by the time a better solution comes along”.

Offering some hope was the next speaker Shaun Ryan from the Cacophony Project who shared an insight into the role of AI and pest control. The Cacophony Project is a mix of technical innovation and conservation and being an open-source project means that anyone can contribute ideas. Shaun and his brother had become increasingly concerned about the decrease in bird song in their backyards and they wanted to find out how much local bird life had changed over the years. From an engineering background, Shaun started to explore better ways to use technology to gather more data on our birdlife. The development of AI thermal cameras has been a big step forward as they have proved to be 3 times more effective than trail cameras. The project has been able to prove that scent trails into traps can be as effective as bait. With the thermal cameras showing that on average only 1 out of 100 pests actually gets caught in a trap, The Cacophony Project experiments have been able to show that if you can get one pest to enter a trap then others will follow.

Cacophony Project’s Bird Monitoring devise will hopefully cut down on time in the field, using technology to identify and record species and upload that information to the Cloud where it can be shared for analysis. This is an exciting time for conservation and those of us involved with predator control as new technologies become more mainstream and available across Aotearoa.

After a break for lunch, it was straight back into the afternoon sessions where Jessi Morgan of Predator Free New Zealand Trust and DR Imogen Bassett from Auckland Council discussed the challenges of responsible cat ownership. Feral cats are an increasing problem and pose a massive threat to native wildlife, however many of us enjoy the companionship of a domesticated cat and are appalled at the idea of anything bad happening to a much-loved pet. As Imogen and Jessi explained a compromise needs to be sought. A starting point is to encourage responsible cat ownership, microchipping of all cats and where possible keeping domesticated cats indoors or providing a confined outdoor area. Working with a local vet to emphasise the message to cat owners to be mindful of the local birdlife and help protect it from what cats. There was much devision amongst the audience on this topic, but Imogen and Jessi offered some good solutions and assured everyone that legislation was being looked at.

The last speaker of the day was DR Stefano Schenone who talked about the use of AI and drone technology to expand our understanding of ecosystems. With New Zealand being made up of 18000 km of shoreline including 400 estuaries covering 5,300 km2 there is a lot of marine biodiversity to consider. “Managing estuarine ecosystems and monitoring ecological change is complex” explained DR Schenone, “we need to monitor the right things and we need to do so cost-effectively”. For example, soft sediments are highly heterogeneous and diverse. Much of the complexity and structure is generated by the small animals that live in the sediment, rather than the large, charismatic megafauna.

Better use of technology is the way forward. As new tech is developed, and old tech becomes cheaper and more accessible the applications for monitoring ecosystems can be infinite, but we must ensure that we are monitoring the right things.

Thanks to Sarah, Tim, Colin & Fran of Restore Rodney East for organising an inspiring day for inviting TFBT to be involved with this fabulous conservation hui. The speakers were both engaging and visionary offering a glimpse of what the Future of Predator Control might look like.

A big thank you to Karen and Helen from our Community Liaison team who manned the kitchen ensuring everyone enjoyed a good lunch and hot drinks on a wet and windy Sunday.